In 2007, while watching a televised Indian cricket match in his apartment in California, sports agent JB Bernstein was struck by a ridiculously innovative idea — to search for the next baseball pitcher in India. After weeks of negotiations with American investors, Bernstein landed in Mumbai to launch a TV reality contest called Million Dollar Arm. Though it initially sounded like a terrible misadventure, Bernstein took two potential pitchers —
Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh from Lucknow — with him to the US for tryouts for Major League Baseball (MLB), finally drafting them with the Pittsburgh Pirates. This resulted in a book Million Dollar Arm, (Simon & Schuster, Rs 399). A film on their lives and journey, by the same name — starring Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame and Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi — released yesterday in India. In an email interview, Bernstein shares his experiences of selecting the first MLB pitchers from India. Excerpts:
You were a successful sports agent in the US with four big-ticket players as your clients. Why did you want to leave all that behind to look for a baseball player in India?
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I never saw Million Dollar Arm as leaving behind my sports business. I viewed it as a new layer, and the fact that India was 13 hours ahead of my home office, afforded me the opportunity to conduct business in both worlds. I worked the days in India, and the nights were left for my work back home.
What convinced you about India and its potential in giving a baseball pitcher since the game is not played here?
I would argue that the odds were in our favour. There are over 100 million men between the ages of 15 and 25 in India who are not really being scouted for any sport. At the time I came to India, even pro-cricket jobs were limited as the Indian Premier League was just launching. Outside of cricket there were no real sports opportunities. We knew that there had to be many natural athletes who did not even realise that they could throw a baseball. It would be like if there was no such thing as basketball in the US, then a guy like Michael Jordan would have no idea he was good at putting a ball through a hoop.
When you arrived in India were there moments you strongly felt that this was a bad idea?
Pitching a baseball is very hard. That is why the best professionals get paid millions of dollars a year. That being said, you see a lot of bad pitchers relative to good ones in any talent contest. We were lucky that on our very first day (of the contest) we saw a young man throw at 90 mph, so we knew our concept had merit. Yet, we had times when we could not find anyone to throw over 60 mph.
What was it like when you had to become more than a sports agent for the two boys (Rinku and Dinesh) and become their babysitter, guide and mentor?
It was hard. I was not prepared for that and in many ways it went against what I was used to. That being said, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Having Rinku and Dinesh live with me changed me for the better. It reminded me of the importance of family and the power of being surrounded by people that love and support you. It taught me to take pride in others’ accomplishments and to welcome responsibility. In essence, it was a precursor to me wanting a family of my own.
The boys were training to become javelin throwers in India. Did you ever want to encourage them in fulfilling that dream?
I believed in my heart that pursuing this opportunity was the best option for them. Rinku was once asked by a reporter if he was sad that he was not representing India in javelin. He answered that he represented India in the US in a way javelin could never have allowed him to. His answer
told me that I had made the right decision.
Will the movie have the same effect in the West like Slumdog Millionaire did, which was a rags-to-riches story?
I hope not. Slumdog Millionaire is fiction. The people in the film did not really exist and the view of India was not positive. I hope that seeing India through my eyes, people get a more clear picture of India, how diverse it is, how happy the people are, its beautiful cities and the spiritual nature of its culture. Our story is about real people and we feel our journey has purpose and is an inspiration for all to adopt in their lives,
How involved were you in the scripting process of the film?
I spent a lot of time with the director and the writer to tell them our story, but in the end I trusted them and Disney to tell this tale.
What are your plans for the Million Dollar Arm in India?
We will start season three at the end of the year, and we hope to see at least 500,000 contestants in over 100 cities in India.